Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 11 October 2015

Freedom Revisited – Arendt, Kant and judgement.

The decision the will arrives at can never be derived from the mechanics of desire or the deliberations of the intellect that may precede it. The will is either an organ of free spontaneity that interrupts all causal chains of motivation that would bind it or it is nothing but an illusion. In respect to desire, on one hand, and to reason, on the other, the will acts like "a kind of coup d'etat," as Bergson once said, and this implies, of course, that "free acts are exceptional": "although we are free whenever we are willing to get back into ourselves, it seldom happens that we are willing." In other words, it is impossible to deal with the willing activity without touching on the problem of freedom. (Arendt, Lectures, p.4)

Arendt is magnificently right. The bourgeoisie is always torn between promulgating the scientific necessity of capitalism with its “economic laws” and, in contradiction, championing the “freedom” that this objectively necessary system bestows on all of society. We have thus an authoritarian economy and a liberal society. How social freedom can be guaranteed objectively, that is, in the absence of participatory democracy, is the great Arcanum of liberal-capitalist society. To paraphrase Henry Ford, you can have any colour you like, so long as it’s a car! Thus, the bourgeoisie always totters between the necessity of the allocation of social resources to production and distribution according to capitalist laws (Steve Jobs telling you what is going to be produced – and therefore how your living activity is going to be applied) – and the “freedom” of consumer choice that supposedly drives production (Steve Jobs merely guessed and gave you what you always wanted but did not know it! Interestingly, and correctly, in the Theorie Schumpeter excludes consumer choice as a driver of capitalist accumulation.). This is the garbage that the bourgeoisie gives us under the guise of “freedom”!

But as Arendt reminds us, it is the irreducibility of the communicability of human thought – even when thought is supposedly the innermost and most “ineffable” element of human existence – that is the insuperable obstacle of scientism. Thought is intrinsically communicable not because we can relate our experiences to “others” – indeed, Arendt is wrong in presuming that any human experience is “communicable” in her sense, because, as Nietzsche stressed, all human concepts are mere signs. But what is “communicable” about human thought is precisely the fact that all thoughts are inconceivable without a “dia-logue”, a splitting up, of the thinker into a dialogue with its own “self”. The “self” therefore can no longer be seen as “one” but involves an ineluctable duality. This is consistent with Merleau-Ponty’s “phenomenology of perception” on which Arendt based her Life of the Mind.

It is surprising and a little disappointing therefore that Arendt failed to go deeper than Kant in her amplification of the great philosopher’s notion of sensus communis as ontogenetic instead of phylogenetic – as is amply revealed in this quotation from her editor:

In the present context, the most important section of Kant's work is § 40 of the Critique of Judgment, entitled "Taste as a kind of sensus communis." Kant writes that

by the name of sensus communis is to be understood the idea of a public sense, i.e., a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account (a priori) of the mode of representation of everyone else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgment with the collective reason of mankind.... This is accomplished by weighing the judgment, not so much with actual, as rather


with the merely possible, judgments of others, and by putting ourselves in the position of everyone else, as the result of a mere abstraction from the limitations which contingently affect our own estimate.

Kant specifies three "maxims of common human understanding," which are: (1) Think for oneself; (2) Think from the standpoint of everyone else; and (3) Always think consistently. It is the second of these, which Kant refers to as the maxim of enlarged thought, that concerns us here, for it is the one that, according to Kant, belongs to judgment (the first and third apply to understanding and reason, respectively). Kant observes that we designate someone as a "man of enlarged mind ... if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgment, which cramp the minds of so many others, and reflects upon his own judgment from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by shifting his ground to the standpoint of others)." Kant concludes that we can rightfully refer to aesthetic judgment and taste as a sensus communis, or "public sense." This particular discussion issues in the definition of taste as "the faculty of estimating what makes our feeling in a given representation universally communicable without the mediation of a concept." (pp.121-2)

Again, Arendt seemed to go along with Kant’s definition of sensus communis or “enlarged thought” as what a human does “if he detaches himself from the subjective personal conditions of his judgment”. But this is precisely the point! That “judgement” does not pertain to “the subjective personal conditions” of a single human being but rather judgement is the one condition that is essential to the very conception of a human being – because judgement (thinking) is the very essence of being human! The expression of a judgement may well be subjective and personal – but that is not what is important about the faculty of judgement. What is quintessential about judgement is precisely its being the human faculty kat esochen, par excellence! Thinking is judging: the voice of conscience, the vox interioris, is the most public voice of all. Just how little even the insightful Arendt penetrated this reality is shown in the Lectures – and in the Postscript by her editor:

But what renders this concept of considerably wider application is the idea that thinking in public can be constitutive of thinking as such. This insight runs counter to widespread assumptions about the nature of thinking, according to which thought can operate privately no less well than publicly. (p.122)

No. Not “thinking in public” can be “constitutive of thinking as such”; it is in fact the other way around: thinking as such is in reality constitutive of thinking in public! Arendt and Kant start from the false premise that thinking is “private”, in fact the most private reality of all! But it is not! Thinking is ineluctably “public” in embryo and in nuce. Failure to capture this phylogenetic element of human experience leads to the dead end of Kantian “sociability” (Geselligkeit) – a bourgeois concept if ever there was one – which is why Colletti (From Rousseau to Kant) correctly paused on Kant’s description of bourgeois society as ungesellige Geselligkeit (unsociable sociability) to highlight his inveterate liberalism. Communicability is central to thought. All thought, qua thought, is communicable. Thus, freedom is not to be understood as vapid decisionism, as a “spiritual” entity, but as the most materialistic, immanent aspect of human being, of being human. The emancipation of human society must be based on this fundamental realization:

And this is of some relevance to a whole set of problems by which modern thought is haunted, especially to the problem of theory and practice and to all attempts to arrive at a halfway plausible theory of ethics. Since Hegel and Marx, these questions have been treated in the perspective of History and on the as-

Postscriptum to Thinking 5

sumption that there is such a thing as Progress of the human race. Finally we shall be left with the only alternative there is in these matters. Either we can say with Hegel: Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht, leaving the ultimate judgment to Success, or we can maintain with Kant the autonomy of the minds of men and their possible independence of things as they are or as they have come into being. (Arendt, op.cit., pp.4-5)

As with Schopenhauer and predestination, for the bourgeoisie success or the accumulation of capital is its own justification. Even Marx, in seeking to historicise social antagonism, came close to turning his critique of capitalist society into a teleology or indeed (as Bobbio [Da Hobbes a Marx] says about the Paris Manuscripts) even into an eschatology, just like Hegel’s (again, Arendt’s judgement in the Lectures on Kant is impeccable, as is her reference there to Kojeve’s famous study on the Phenomenology).

Just how relevant all this is to cultural criticism is displayed by this review of the recent film, “The Martian”, by Max Brody in The New Yorker:

Scott is interested solely in the characters’ function in relation to the success of the mission to rescue Mark. His characters are free of history and devoid of intimate crises; their identity isn’t celebrated or even acknowledged in any substantial way, it’s filtered out. Scott delivers a vision of a pure and impersonal scientific meritocracy, and he envisions science and its locked-in binary implacability (leading to the ultimate binary opposition—life or death) as a model for societal integration.

His characters just do it; the movie’s key scientific lightbulb moment is delivered by a young, brilliant mathematician (Donald Glover) with cool slacker-hipster manners and distracted people skills. The chief engineer, Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), is messy and somewhat uncommunicative, but he can meet the schedule. And, of course, from the perspective of the success or failure of the mission to rescue Mark, nothing matters except the technical skills to conceive it and to execute it. But those skills belong to people, with ideas and habits of mind, passions and emotional burdens, inclinations and aversions, fears and desires, which don’t vanish when the subject turns to science.

Scott seems to be offering a sort of advertisement for technical achievement as a model of human achievement, but it’s one in which the human factor is left out….

The relentless focus on technical achievement, in the absence of the complexity of the characters—in the absence of cultural identities and emotional connections, backstories and ambitions, the drive of will and ideological commitment, of fantasy and distraction—is the very antithesis of artistic creation. The first remarkable, impersonal technical achievement that Scott seems to be celebrating is his own.

We shall deal with the problem of theory and practice in the next intervention.

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